On the job for 55 years, Judi Dench elevates everything she does, from M in the James Bond epics to the less intimidating but equally determined “little old Irish lady” who’s the title character in “Philomena.” Dench is not the only reason to see this unapologetic crowd-pleaser, but she is the best one.
As directed by the veteran Stephen Frears, “Philomena’s” “inspired by true events” narrative initially has trouble deciding what kind of film it wants to be, alternating between cheeky comedy and the more serious emotional moments inherent in the story of a woman looking for a child she was forced to give away in adoption.
Though it ends up the least involving part of the film, “Philomena” does come by its comedy honestly. Co-star Steve Coogan, one of Britain’s top comics, is not only Dench’s co-star, he is also one of the film’s producers (and co-writer with Jeff Pope), and his presence mandated a certain amount of mostly indifferent humor that gets the film off to an unsteady start. (The film’s PG-13 rating, in part for language, is much more appropriate than its original R.)
But as “Philomena” gets deeper into its involving plot, it seems to gain confidence in the strength of its narrative and accepts the fact that telling a dramatic story is Job One.
While one can wish that some of the storytelling were less on the nose, the film’s overall effectiveness is hard to deny.
A good part of the credit for this goes to Dench’s performance as Philomena Lee – Phil for short, a retired nurse with quite a story to tell. It is the genius of the actress’ work that by bringing an instinctive dignity to her characterization, she creates someone who is simultaneously average and extraordinary.
Dench is especially effective in Philomena’s reveries, fleeting moments of memory and repose when the most delicate of looks pass across her face.
It was co-writer Coogan, in fact, who discovered the film’s narrative lurking behind an incendiary headline in the Manchester Guardian: “The Catholic Church Sold My Child.”
That led him to a nonfiction book by Martin Sixsmith that told Philomena’s story in detail.
Though Sixsmith is not a character in his own book, as played by Coogan he has been drafted into the film as co-protagonist. In fact, “Philomena” begins with Sixsmith’s predicament: Formerly a BBC foreign correspondent, he was employed as director of communications for Tony Blair’s government when something he did – the film is murky on exactly what – got him fired.
Desperate for something to do, he is approached by Philomena’s daughter, Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin), about her mother’s story, but Sixsmith is initially dismissive. He considers human interest stories to be journalism written about and for “weak-minded, ignorant people.” Full stop.
Obviously (there wouldn’t be a film otherwise) Sixsmith has a change of heart and agrees to investigate Philomena’s story. It is one of the film’s drawbacks, however, that this film is as much about the getting of wisdom for him as it is about the getting of information for Phil.
That’s a problem because this humanizing of a cynical, emotionally disconnected twit into someone who recognizes the wisdom in a person of the lower classes is as much of a cliche as it sounds. “Philomena” does get some mileage out of specifically British class references – there are jokes about Ryan Air and the Vauxhall Cavalier family car – but Sixsmith never rises above the level of dramatic construct, while Philomena becomes meaningful and real.
The reason for that, aside from Dench’s acting, is the strength of her story, which has parallels to the tales told in Peter Mullan’s considerably more savage 2002 feature, “The Magdalene Sisters.” Finding herself pregnant and out of wedlock as an Irish teenager in 1952, Philomena takes the only refuge that’s open to her and is handed over to the nuns at the Sacred Heart Convent in Roscrea. (Sophie Kennedy Clark is effective as the young Philomena in the film’s extensive flashbacks.)
These nuns, especially the hard-core Sister Hildegarde (played young by Kate Fleetwood and old by Barbara Jefford), really crack the whip. Philomena, wracked by guilt as she is, does daily backbreaking work in the laundry and is allowed to see her young son only one hour a day. She is coerced into letting her son be given away for adoption, something that haunts her for a full half-century until she confesses to daughter Jane what happened and starts on the journey to find him.
That story is the heart of “Philomena” and, fortunately, it is a truly surprising one, filled with drama as well as several unexpected twists. “Philomena’s” setup does feel conventional, but Dench makes the resolution worth waiting for.